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How You Pronounce the Letter X in Portuguese

Regarding pronunciation, the letter x is definitely challenging for those learning Portuguese. Here is why;

In Portuguese, the letter x stands for four different language sounds, namely, the /ʃ/-sound (as in shape), the /ks/-sound (as in tax), the /z/-sound (as in zen), and the /s/-sound (as in sun).

Luckily, there are a few spelling patterns that will make it easier for you. Learning these patterns and keeping them in the back of your mind will allow you, in most cases, to guess it right. Read on.

IPA – International Phonetic Alphabet

The symbols in the paragraph above, the ones enclosed in forward-slashes, are IPA symbols and refer to language sounds across all languages regardless of their specific scripts. 

Read the following article if you want to learn the IPA symbols specifically concerning the Portuguese language: Portuguese pronunciation: a helpful guide to Portuguese basic sounds and spelling patterns.

/ʃ/-sound

The most common language sound produced by X is, by far, the /ʃ/-sound (as is ashes). Let’s look at a few spelling patterns rendering the /ʃ/-sound.

Words starting with X

Virtually all Portuguese words starting with an X render the /ʃ/-sound. Here’re a few examples: 

  • xeque (check)
  • xarope (syrup)
  • xerife (sheriff)
  • xenofobia (xenophobia)
  • xícara (tea-cup)
  • . . .

X in front of a consonant

Also, whenever the letter X stands right in front of another consonant, it will produce the /ʃ/-sound. Many of the words in this group have English cognates wherein the X renders a /ks/-sound instead:

  • texto (text)
  • explorar (explore)
  • extremo (extreme)
  • expectativa (expectation)
  • exterior (exterior)
  • . . .

X in between vowels

The letter X is more devious when it is stuck in between vowels. In that case, there are three possibilities and no definitive rules. Yet, in most cases, X will render the /ʃ/-sound as before. Take a look at the following examples:

  • baixo (short)
  • ameixa (plum)
  • queixa (complaint)
  • lixo (garbage)
  • puxar (pull)
  • . . .

Again, when stuck in between vowels, the letter X can also render language sounds other than the /ʃ/-sound. Let’s take a look at those cases.

/ks/-sound

The letter X produces a /ks/-sound (as in accident) when stuck in between vowels. Often, these words have English cognates that are also pronounced with the same /ks/-sound. Take a look at these examples:

  • complexo (complex)
  • taxonomia (taxonomy)
  • fluxo (flux)
  • xico (toxic)
  • axioma (axiom)
  • . . .

/z/-sound

The letter X can also stand for the /z/-sound (as in zealous). Typically, these words have English cognates *, although the latter will render the /gz/-sound instead:

  • exausto (exhaust)
  • exagero (exaggeration)
  • exílio (exile)
  • exame (exam)
  • exótico (exotic)
  • . . . 

* Speaking of cognates, you may know more Portuguese words than you think you do. Here’s something to give your vocabulary a real boost: English-Portuguese cognates – the words you already know (without knowing it).

/s/-sound

Finally, the letter X can also stand for the /s/-sound (as in sow). However, this is rare and you should look at it as an exception:

  • próximo (next)
  • ximo (maximum)
  • auxílio (help)
  • . . .

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